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First Fig -- Edna St Vincent Millay

       
(Poem #34) First Fig
My candle burns at both ends;
It will not last the night;
But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends--
It gives a lovely light!
-- Edna St Vincent Millay
Another simple, gemlike poem to which there is really nothing for me to add.
Millay is high up on my list of poets whom I feel deserve to be better known -
her poetry is wonderfully lyrical, often moving and always beautiful.

Biographical Notes:

  Edna St. Vincent Millay, born in 1892 in Maine, grew to become one of the
  premier twentieth-century lyric poets. She was also an accomplished
  playwright and speaker who often toured giving readings of her poetry. All of
  that was in her public life, but her private life was equally interesting. An
  unconventional childhood led into an unconventional adulthood. She was an
  acknowledged bisexual who carried on many affairs with women, an affection
  for which is sometimes evident in her poems and plays. She did marry, but
  even that part of her life was somewhat unusual, with the marriage being
  quite open, and extramarital affairs, tho not documented, quite probable.

  Millay enjoyed her free-spirited childhood and adolescence and the creativity
  that it inspired. At the age of twenty, she entered her poem "Renascence"
  into a poetry contest for the The Lyric Year, a contest from which 100 poems
  were to be chosen to be published. It was, at first, overlooked as being too
  simplistic, However, one of the judges took a second look at it and the poem,
  now one of her most well known, ended up winning fourth place. It was that
  poem which really started her on her literary career, beginning with a
  scholarship to the then all female college of Vassar.

  Millay kept up her writing, both poetic and dramatic while at Vassar. It was
  during this time that she was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for her book The
  Harp-Weaver and other Poems.

        -- excerpted from the 'Renascence' website
        <http://members.aol.com/MillayGirl/millay.htm#BIOGRAPHY>

Criticism:

  Undoubtedly some of the furor aroused by her earlier poems was due to the
  period of their appearance; in those first volumes Millay was the voice of
  rebellious "flaming youth, " of the young people who were bent on gathering
  "figs from thistles" and burning their candles at both ends, of the girls who
  claimed for themselves the free standards of their brothers. With the
  exception of Elinor Wylie in her last great series, no woman since Elizabeth
  Barrett Browning, it has been argued, excels her in that (Sonnet) form.
  Hildegarde Flanner spoke of "the sense of freshness and transparent
  revelation that early lyrics conveyed," of "the infusion of personal energy
  and glow into the traditions of lyric poetry, and deceptively artless ability
  to set down the naked fact un-fortified." She brought a new sense of poetry
  as song to a generation. In any poll of literate (not professional) opinion,
  it is stated that she would have almost certainly have been named first among
  the contemporary poets of America. The skill with which she employed the
  sonnet, developed over a number of years, perhaps most evident in "Epitaph
  for the Race of Man" (1928) and Fatal Interview (1931), can be explained in
  large part by the tension created between form and content: "I will put Chaos
  in fourteen lines," she said in Mine the Harvest. Moreover, it has become
  clear that she helped to free the poetry of American women from thematic
  inhibitions.

  Following her successes in the 1920's and early 1930's, Millay's poetry
  gradually suffered a critical and popular decline. Unfortunately, her real
  poetic achievements were overshadowed by her image as the free (but
  "naughty") woman of the 1920's. During the last two decades of her life,
  Millay was almost ignored critically, although her Collected Sonnets appeared
  in 1941 and Collected Lyrics in 1943. Since the late 1960's, however, there
  has been a renewed interest in Millay's works, with more sympathetic critical
  evaluation.

    -- From <[broken link] http://www.geocities.com/Paris/LeftBank/6865/millaybio.html>

Incidentally, if you would like to read more of her work, there are a number of
Millay pages on the net, of which my favourite is
<[broken link] http://www.geocities.com/Paris/LeftBank/6865/millay.html>

Martin

49 comments: ( or Leave a comment )

Bob Lowell said...

First time I've seen my feelings about life expressed so succinctly!

Shailja Sharma said...

I like this poem for it talks about LIVING life, how many times have we
seen people breathing fearing death every moment.The joys we find may
not last a lifetime, but live them when u find them, for tomorrow they
shall go anyway.Also, this poem has another viewpoint, i am a romantic
at heart and i'd like to belive ths poem is about love, ununited love,
which had no end, no destination but it walked on till it reached a
deadend (though i don't think love stories really reach an end, they are
timeless).

Mark Potuck said...

I never knew the derivation of the line "burning your candle at both
ends", but it now seems Edna may be responsible for its popularity. As
a wellness presenter, I've always used the quote to describe something
one should not do, but now I see there is another perspective to
consider.

Ajit Narayanan said...

c.f.:
I Burned My Candle At Both Ends

I burned my candle at both ends,
And now have neither foes nor friends;
For all the lovely light begotten,
I'm paying now in feeling rotten.

-- Samuel Hoffenstein

.ajitq

Michael said...

With greatest respect for your tallents (How'd he do that?),
Michael R. Weigner, G.G.

Joe Walsh & Don Henley made good use of Milays' 'First Fig' in there song
'Falling Down" (lines 10 & 11)...although they illuminate the more dark and
depressing side of the poem...the factor of time. In the final end, we are
all constantly filling the void of time...fast or slow, the candle will
ultimately burn out.

Falling Down
(J. Walsh, D. Henley)

Make it no deposit, no return
Making the same mistakes, we never learn
All of the pain in those faces
Trying not to show concern

Spent and broken
Like a worn out subway token
In the city

Hanging in the closet, wait in line
When you go by the laws, you pay the fine
Burning candles at both ends
Twice the light in half the time

Damn the calling
Feel like I'm falling
And the rain doesn't have to hurry in the city
Falls sadly to the ground
Rain doesn't have to hurry in the city
Only way to fall is down

But still you run a race that can't be won
Aiming hard to fill the spaces when they're gone
Worn out shoes with no laces
Getting too loose to stay on

Back to crawling
Feel like I'm falling
And the rain takes its time to fall in the city
Falls sadly to the ground
Rain kinda of says it all in the city
Only way to fall is down

Nikki Nel said...

Why the title first fig?

Does it represent something to the poet or is it just perhaps that figs taste nice and life should be considered in the same way. Do figs represent joy? Eating a fig, enjoying every moment of life for the first time?

DUKEBUDDY said...

"Live fast, die young, leave a good looking corpse." John Derek

McGillicuddy Colin said...

Perhaps the fig is a reference to the apple in the Garden of Eden.

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John Black said...

I always thought the first line was "I burn my candle at both ends" which sems to scan much better, Was it ever revised by the author?

John black

bill wilkinson said...

"...poets whom (!) I feel...?
Poets who deserve ...,I feel.

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Anonymous said...

I do agree the Vincent is oone of the best female poets of her time. Her poetry is traditional and understandable by many readers.

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